Syria Table of Contents
A farming family from rural Muzayrib in southwestern Syria
Syrian life centers on the extended family. The individual's loyalty to his family is nearly absolute and usually overrides all other obligations. Except in the more sophisticated urban circles, the individual's social standing depends on his family background. Although status is changing within the emerging middle class, ascribed rather than achieved status still regulates the average Syrian's life. His honor and dignity are tied to the good repute of his kin group and, especially, to that of its women.
Gender is one of the most important determinants of social status in Arab society. Although the traditional seclusion of women is not strictly observed in most parts of the country, social contact between the sexes is limited. Among Muslims, men and women in effect constitute distinct social subgroups, intersecting only in the home. A strict division of labor by sex is observed in most social environments, with the exception of certain circumscribed professional activities performed by educated urban women. The roles of the sexes in family life differ markedly, as do the social expectations. The differences are expressed and fostered in child rearing, in ideology, and in daily life.
Because of the cohesiveness of religious and ethnic groups, they universally encourage endogamy, or the marriage of members within the group. Lineages, or groups of families tracing descent to a common ancestor, also strive for endogamy, although this is in fact less common, despite its theoretical desirability. Viewed as a practical bond between families, marriage often has political and economic overtones even among the poor.
Descent is traced through men, or patrilineally, in all groups. In addition, the individual household is based on blood ties between men. Syrians ideally and sentimentally prefer the three-generation household consisting of a senior couple; their married sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren; and their unmarried sons, daughters, and other miscellaneous patrilineal relatives. The latter might include a widowed mother or widowed or divorced sister of the household head or a widow of his brother along with her children. At the death of the household head, adult sons establish their own homes, each to repeat the pattern.
This ideal is realized in no more than a quarter of the households. Little reliable information is available about the size of households, but authorities believe that they average between five and seven persons and that city households are slightly smaller than rural; among Christians the difference between urban and rural household size is more marked than among Muslims. The relatively large size of the typical household probably results from a large number of children and the rarity of single adults living alone; children live at home until marriage, and the widowed tend to live with their children or other relatives.
Syrians highly value family solidarity and, consequently, obedience of children to the wishes of their parents. Being a good family member includes automatic loyalty to kinsmen as well. Syrians employed in modern bureaucratic positions, such as government officials, therefore find impersonal impartiality difficult because its conflicts with the deeply held value of family solidarity.
Syrians have no similar ingrained feelings of loyalty toward a job, an employer, a coworker, or even a friend. There is widespread conviction that the only reliable people are one's kinsmen. An officeholder tends to select his kinsmen as fellow workers or subordinates because he feels a sense of responsibility for them and trusts them. Commercial establishments are largely family operations staffed by the offspring and relatives of the owner. Cooperation among business firms may be determined by the presence or absence of kinship ties between the heads of firms. When two young men become very close friends, they often enhance their relationship by accepting one another as "brothers," thus placing each in a position of special responsibility toward the other. There is no real basis for a close relationship except ties of kinship.
Ideally one should marry within one's lineage. The son or daughter of one's father brother, i.e., one's first cousin, is considered the most appropriate mate. Particularly among the beduin, such marriages occur frequently. In some communities, the male cousin has a presumptive right to marry his female patrilineal first cousin and may be paid by another suitor to release her from this obligation. In towns, marriage between cousins is common among both the wealthiest and the poorest groups. In large metropolitan centers, however, the custom is breaking down, especially among the middle class. Marriage between first cousins is common among Sunnis, including Kurds and Turkomans, although it is forbidden among Circassians. Christians forbid marriage between first cousins. Nevertheless, those groups that forbid marriage of cousins still value family endogamy and encourage the marriage of more distant relatives.
Traditionally, in both Muslim and Christian marriages, the groom or his family must pay a bride price or mahr to the bride or her family. The bride price can be extremely high; it is not unusual for a middle class family to demand of the groom the equivalent of several years salary as the price of marriage to their daughter. However, this payment is often specified in prenuptial contracts to be payable only in the event of a divorce or separation. Therefore, the bride price serves as an alimony fund. The wealthy marry within their families not only to preserve the presumed purity of their bloodlines but to keep the bride price within the family, whereas the poor do so to avoid bride-price payments.
Therefore, marriage is customarily arranged. Among the members of the small urban, Westernized community, a man and woman participate in the decisionmaking and usually can veto the family's choice; but, with rare exceptions, marriage is a familial as well as a personal matter. In rural areas, marriage remains a family matter, too important to be left to the whims and desires of the youthful participants. The preferred marriage is an endogamous one. Althouth, until recently, marriages were arranged for practical, i.e., non-romantic, reasons there is a sizable folklore concerning passionate love affairs and elopements, but such actions rarely occur.
Endogamous marriage and high bride prices serve as deterrents to divorce, counterbalancing the relative ease of divorce authorized in Islamic law and tradition. According to sharia, a man may summarily divorce his wife simply by pronouncing the talaka, or repudiation, three times, although it is far more difficult for a wife to divorce her husband. Currently in Syria, a sharia court adjudicates divorce. Incompatibility is cited most often as justification.
Seven percent of marriages end in divorce, according to Syrian statistics from 1984. The rate varied from a high of 16 percent in urban Damascus to a low of 2 percent in rural Al Hasakah.
If a woman marries within her own lineage, she has the security of living among her people, and the demands upon her loyalty are simple and direct. If she marries into a different lineage, she is among comparative strangers and may also be torn between loyalty to her husband's family and lineage and loyalty to her paternal kinsmen, particularly if trouble should develop between the two. As a wife, she is expected to support her husband and his family, but as a daughter--still dependent on the moral support of her father and brothers--she may feel compelled to advocate their interest. Her father's household always remains open to her and, in case of a dispute with her husband, she may return to her father's house.
Except in the small, urban, Westernized segment of society, the spheres of men and women tend to be strictly separated, and little friendship or companionship exists between the sexes. People seek friendship, amusement, and entertainment with their own sex, and contact between the two sexes takes place primarily within the home.
Women are viewed as weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit and therefore in need of male protection, particularly protection from nonrelated men. The honor of men depends largely on that of their women, and especially on that of their sisters; consequently, the conduct of women is expected to be circumspect, modest, and decorous, with their virtue above reproach. Veiling is rarely practiced in villages or tribes, but in towns and cities keeping one's women secluded and veiled was traditionally considered a sign of elevated status. In the mid-1980s, the practice of wearing the veil was quite rare among young women in cities; however, the wearing of the hijab (a scarf covering the hair) was much more common. Wearing the hijab was sometimes more a symbol of Islamic affiliation than a token of modesty, and the garment underwent a revival in the 1980s as a subtle protest against the secular Baath regime. For this reason, the government discouraged the wearing of such Islamic apparel.
The traditional code invests men as members of family groups with a highly valuable but easily damaged honor (ird). The slightest implication of unavenged impropriety on the part of the women in his family or of male infractions of the code of honesty and hospitality could irreparably destroy the honor of a family. In particular, female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity afterward are essential to the maintenance of honor. In the case of a discovered transgression, the men of a family were traditionally bound to kill the offending woman, although in modern times she is more likely to be banished to a town or city where she is not known.
There is no evidence that urbanization per se has lessened the importance of the concept of honor to the Syrian. The fact that town life is still concentrated in the face-to-face context of the quarter ensures the survival of the traditional notion of honor as personal repute in the community. Some authorities have suggested, however, that although urbanization in itself does not threaten the concept, increased modern secular education will probably do so.
In common with most traditional societies, traditional Arab society tended--and to an unknown extent continues--to put a different and higher value on sons than on daughters. The birth of a boy is an occasion for great celebration, whereas that of a girl is not necessarily so observed. Failure to produce sons may be used as grounds for divorcing a wife or taking a second. Barren women, therefore, are often desperately eager to bear sons and frequently patronize quack healers and medicine men and women.
Data as of April 1987
Syria Table of Contents